Climate change warriors who are demanding NZ’s dairy herd be culled immediately to meet targets of lower methane emissions may be confounded by the evidence that leading farmers are already succeeding in lowering gas emissions. And the prospects of huge advances in other aspects of dairying, particularly in AI, robotics and the development of new crops, portend further gains..
And what’s holding up another key development?
It’s the intransigence of the so-called Green lobby against the introduction of genetic technology.
In a Ministry for the Environment briefing to Environment Minister David Parker in June 2018, officials warned NZ could fall behind the rest of the world in genetic engineering technologies. They said the rapid pace of technological change is forcing countries to clarify their positions, and recommended the government update the law.
The Labour element of the government coalition has done little so far to bring NZ into line with what other countries are doing on gene editing — but it has recognised the importance of funding innovation and sustainability of the farming industry.
More than $25m is to go towards innovation and sustainability in NZ’s dairy industry.
A $25.68m programme, officially launched at the National Fieldays by Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor, will drive improvements in the health and wellbeing of the national dairy herd and a step-change in sustainable milk production.
Critics say this is too little and too slow but it does build on work already being pioneered by DairyNZ.
The seven-year programme, called Resilient Dairy: Innovative Breeding for a Sustainable Future, is being led by farmer-owned herd improvement co-operative Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC), with investment and support from the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and DairyNZ.
They say it will invest in new disease management technologies and advancements in genomic science to improve cow productivity, and produce better cows with improved health, wellbeing and environmental resilience.
Over the life of the programme, LIC is investing $11.2m, MPI $10.3m and DairyNZ $4.2m.
MPI is investing in this new programme because it says it aims to deliver long-term gains in a number of areas, including sustainable production, milk quality, and animal wellbeing, while importantly reducing impacts on the environment.
LIC, the largest supplier of artificial breeding services to NZ’s dairy farms, says it will leverage its existing capabilities in genomic science and diagnostics to develop innovative breeding tools and tests that support more sustainable milk production.
Investment from DairyNZ will go into re-building its national evaluation system for dairy cattle to incorporate genomic information to facilitate faster rates of genetic gain.
“Resilient Dairy is our opportunity to get back in front of the world with genetic gain,” says Bruce Thorrold, DairyNZ’s strategic investment leader.
“With new discoveries in genomic methods and data collection we are now in the position to jump ahead and incorporate genomic data into our animal evaluation system – enabling the whole sector to maximise genetic gain,”.
Other authorities believe faster progress could be made if NZ was conducting its own genetic engineering research.
In spite of the government dragging its feet on GE, at the same time as it brings in new rules on agricultural emissions, requiring farmers to reduce methane losses from livestock by 10% by 2030 and 24-47% by 2050,) latest trial work across a range of NZ dairy farms is showing that reductions in green-house gas emissions are possible using existing practices, making the initial 10% drop less daunting than many farmers may have realised.
A dozen demonstration dairy farms operating across NZ through DairyNZ’s Partnership Farm Project underline how farmers can lower gas emissions, but also achieving gains in productivity and profitability along the way.
The first farm to open its gate on how well it has done over the past two-year trial period was Owl Farm, owned by St Peters School near Cambridge.
At the farm’s open day farmers learnt how management working alongside DairyNZ staff had managed to slice almost 13% off the farm’s gas emissions while also increasing farm operating profit per hectare by 14%.
The reductions were achieved through a number of relatively straightforward moves that included cutting stocking rates back by 5%, dropping nitrogen fertiliser use by 13kg a hectare and slicing bought in feed from 20% of total feed down to 11%.
In addition to reducing gas losses, the farm also managed to lower its nutrient losses into waterways, slicing 14% off nitrogen losses.
Overall the farm managed to achieve a reduction of 1t of gas per hectare.
Its profile as a relatively typical “average” Waikato farm provides a positive example of what could be achieved by many other farms running similar grass-based systems.
DairyNZ chief executive Dr Tim Mackle says NZ is already one of the lowest emissions producers of dairy products in the world per kg of milk solids, and wants to build on that advantage.
“The 2030 reduction target is the first step, which we know will be very challenging. But there is action farmers can take, and are already taking to reduce on farm emissions through farm systems changes and new technologies.”
The development of that new technology is being headed up by the Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, close to reaching its 10th anniversary after being opened by then Prime Minister John Key. The centre has proven invaluable in giving NZ farmers a head start in the race to develop technologies that will help mitigate methane losses from livestock in a sustainable, profitable fashion.
Centre head Dr Harry Clark has told farmers there are likely to be a combination of relatively small changes that will help them reduce gas losses in coming years, while prospects are positive in the medium term for methane inhibitors, and longer term for vaccines.
But if NZ doesn’t want to lose its role as a world leader in food production it needs to be an early adopter of GE research, with its own laboratories working in the field, not just to meet carbon zero targets, but to expand the output of food. The world will certainly need vast new supplies of food if, as the climate change warriors believe, global warming will destroy traditional crops in countries like India and China.